All through 2021 I had been working on my winter gear: trying out clothing options, refining radio gear, and working out ways to get from point A to point B in the dead of winter. On this trip it all came together.
The first part of this trip was the “getting there piece.” My planned location was on the north end of Shem Pete Lake, within the state park. The spot I picked out would give me a wide open frozen lake to the south and east, which should be great for getting signals out.
A lot of people use snowmachines in the park, but since I didn’t have one of those it was going to be a snowshoe and pulk kind of trip.
The route I picked was an established winter trail, and I wasn’t going in very far – only about three miles. That would be plenty far enough to have a fun adventure, but not so far that if things went wrong I would have difficulty getting back to the truck.
The wild card on this trip was that it would be a true camp-out. My shelter for the next two nights would be a hot tent, using a folding wood stove for both heat and cooking. I had already tested the stove and tent over a few nights in my backyard, so I felt confident with it, but you never know how things are going to the first time you hit the field for real.
As luck would have it things worked out well on the trail. Aside from a missed junction and little bit of backtracking I did well getting to my destination. Where I ran into trouble was in starting out later than I should have. By the time I got to Shem Pete Lake I was too tired to travel down to my originally-chosen spot, and set up at a spot which was a little easier to reach. This would come around to bite me later.
The first evening turned into a long affair of cutting wood in the deep snow, hauling it back to camp, and then finally getting the sodden crap I gathered to light. By 10 or 11 I was in my sleeping bag though, and drifted off to sleep. The reward was the first night of aurora dancing around far to the north of me.
Saturday dawned late, and I was behind on my game. The original plan was to have camp and the station set up by the first night, so that I could operate all day Saturday without having to do camp chores. Unfortunately, I lost a lot of time on Saturday morning chopping firewood to build up a supply, and then finally setting up the station.
The station for this event consisted of:
- Yaesu 891 radio for HF
- Yaesu 817 for VHF-UHF
- Non-resonant 43’ vertical wire antenna with counterpoise, fed through 4:1 unun (HF)
- Dual band twin lead J-pole antenna for VHF-UHF
While the camp worked well, the radio station started to go to hell pretty quickly:
Firstly, the spot where I set up put me too close to some small hills, which blocked a clear view to the south and east as I would need for the event.
Adding to the difficulties of a bad site, the telescoping fiberglass mast I brought for the wire HF antenna was too short.
This resulted in much of the antenna being barely above the snow, hurting gain.
To add insult to injury, the twin lead J-pole for VHF-UHF had failed, and was unusable due to extreme SWR.
This trip was supposed to be a combination of a POTA activation with a Winter Field Day entry. To do that with my limited battery and transmit capability meant depending on digital modes, and specifically on RTTY and PSK31. FT8 does not have enough payload to carry the winter field day exchange, and so is not a valid mode for the event.
Unfortunately, the combination of antenna and site issues was killing me on reception, and I was barely able to make out any winter field day stations on PSK31, and couldn’t decode any on RTTY. With time running out and options dwindling I decided to bail on Winter Field Day and just do a POTA activation using FT8. Even with the very compromised setup I was still able to work contacts on that mode and ensure the trip was not wasted.
I made the best of a bad situation, and worked contacts all day Saturday. Over the course fo two UTC-day time blocks I worked a total of 48 contacts; not bad for such a compromised setup. And I certainly couldn’t beat the warmth, comfort, and convenience of having the hot tent. Even though the temperature got down to nearly zero I stayed quite comfortable in the tent.
The original plan had been to work contacts until Winter Field Day ended on Sunday morning, but since I was having so many issues I decided to just operate for the day. After another night in the tent I packed up early on Sunday and made my way back to civilization.
The only people I saw the whole weekend were a couple cross country skiing to one of the state cabins in the park (and two moose). Solitude, ham radio, a cozy fire, and a good adventure . . . what more could you ask for (other than about ten more feet of mast)?